You and I are held captive by unconscious beliefs we learned as children.
We all learned different things — depending on our families and how we were treated — but we all internalized ideas that became our core beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs help us to survive as children and become our defense mechanisms. They’re like silent background instructions telling us how to survive and get our needs met.
But then we grow up and keep living as though our simplistic childhood beliefs are actually true. In this way, our childhood defenses turn into adult blind spots that can make us miserable — and we don’t even know we’re doing it.
I’ve recently learned something interesting. If I know enough about your personality, I can go a long way toward determining which false beliefs you learned about yourself. Our secrets aren’t as hidden as we think they are.
I learned to be afraid of making mistakes. I learned that mistakes — about almost anything — would lead to harsh punishment. I learned that perfect obedience and superior performance would be praised and emotionally rewarded. I would get approval which felt like love. All of that coalesced into one false and dangerous belief:
“Unless I am perfect in every way, nobody is going to love me.”
As a rational adult, I know I’m not perfect. I know I’ve never been perfect and I know that nobody can possibly be perfect. But I internalized a reward-and-punishment system in my mind that is based on a very black-and-white view of pursuing perfection.
This false belief became the narrative of my life. I didn’t realize it was even there, but I relentlessly pursued perfection — or the appearance of perfection — and I evaluated the world around me in the same black-and-white terms.
I thought I had to find perfection, which set me up to be miserable with everything.
I’ve talked several times recently about the huge crisis that I went through when I was about 30. The more I think about that — in light of the things I’ve been understanding about myself lately — the more it makes sense that my newspaper company’s failure did what it did to me. It was my first major failure as an adult — and that made me feel worthless and unworthy of love, because I was so imperfect that I had failed.
It was that period when my need for perfection peaked. The experience humiliated me and made me feel shame — by causing me to feel so worthless and imperfect — that I had to start changing just to survive. I mentioned sometime recently that I spent the first part of my life learning how to be a successful person — and I’ve spent the time since learning how to be a decent and loving person.
Without knowing what I was doing, I’ve been looking for a middle ground between what I was then and the more loving and emotionally aware person I’ve become. Back then, I wasn’t as emotionally aware as I am now. I wasn’t as loving and kind as I try to be now. That’s because I had only my standard of perfection — for myself and others — and I made very few allowances for anything outside of perfection.
I realize now that I was trying to be perfect to win the approval of parents who had enough problems of their own that I never could get what I needed. And since they’re both gone, I have no choice but to find different standards for myself — different beliefs about what will get the love I need so much.
As I’ve become more aware of what I once was — and what is still there in a humanized form — I’ve realized ways in which I was too hard on myself and others when I was younger. I’m still glad I have high standards, but I’m also glad that I’ve learned so much about empathy and compassion and tolerance and love.
For most of my life, I resisted the notion that I was perfectionist, although other people constantly told me that’s what I was. I didn’t see how anyone could possibly see me as a perfectionist, because I allowed so much of my life to be so imperfect. I now understand that there have been things in my life which I’ve completely ignored — areas in which I haven’t even tried — because I felt so miserably imperfect.
What’s your unconscious false belief? Do you know?
— If you’re driven to nurture others and take care of them, you might have learned at an early age that your needs don’t matter. You might have learned that the only way to get approval and love was to completely give your life to taking care of others. In this way, you might have learned to manipulate other people by doing things for them — to the point that you ignored your own needs and left others feeling that your “help” was controlling. (There’s a lot of my father in this false belief. I suspect this need to manipulate and control — in order to get love in return — led to his narcissism.)
— If you’re driven to great outward success and material reward, you might have learned that you and your feelings didn’t matter. You might have learned that you will get approval and love only if you perform well — if you have achievements and honors that others approve of. You might have learned to stifle your feelings and your core needs, because you unconsciously realized your need and your hurts didn’t matter. You might have learned that you were worthless unless you could show achievements to others. This means you would spend your life ignoring your needs and pursuing the sorts of performance that got you approval when you were younger.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
We come to see these things as elements of our personality. We fail to see that these weren’t actually part of who we are, but are only our responses to our circumstances as children. Then we get so accustomed to acting in those ways that we assume those patterns are who we really are.
It was writer Mo Willems who said, “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” Your false belief about yourself creates the false story that you’ve been living. If you figure out what that false story is — the false belief — you owe it to yourself to change your story.
I am still fearful that I won’t be loved if I’m not perfect. It’s so easy for me to feel shame about my imperfections and failures. It’s so easy to allow myself to completely ignore things which I need to deal with simply because I fear I can’t be perfect. In this way, I can fail to deal with things I really need to deal with — out of fear that they will show how imperfect I am.
But knowing what I’m doing is the first step. I have to be painfully aware of what I’ve been doing to myself. I have to consciously work to rewrite my story — to tell myself that I’m worthy of love even though I’m not perfect. It’s hard to change such a bedrock belief which is so deeply embedded, but if I don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it for me.
In a lot of ways, our parents are like the builders of ancient machinery that keeps functioning long after they’re gone. It’s hard to know what issues from their own past led them to treat us in the ways that they did, but their hidden motivations and unconscious beliefs about themselves drove them to “build us” as they did.
We are the products of the things they did — and we continue with the programming they gave us long ago. Even after they’re no longer “programming” us — and they might actually be dead — we’re still living out the programming they gave us.
At some point, our parents are no longer responsible for our programming. They’re no longer responsible for what we believe. At some point, we have to find a way to understand why we believe what we do — and we have to make changes that are consistent with being the people we need to be.
This change can be painful and difficult, but it’s the only way we’re ever going to be able to become the happy and emotionally healthy adults that we want to be. And it’s the only way we’re going to be able to help our children achieve the healthy growth that so many of us didn’t find as children.